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No vaccine will spare residents from quick-spreading Omicron variant, top doctor warns

Tara Jeffrey Lambton’s top doctor says there’s little residents can do to stop the Omicron variant of COVID-19 from spreading “dramatically” over the next few months.
Lambton Public Health
Lambton Public Health

Tara Jeffrey

Lambton’s top doctor says there’s little residents can do to stop the Omicron variant of COVID-19 from spreading “dramatically” over the next few months.

“The reason I’m saying this is not to scare people, but people need to know what’s coming so they can prepare, and figure out what their risk tolerance is and act accordingly,” Dr. Sudit Ranade told The Journal today.

“It’s not about if you’re going to get COVID-19, but when. And that holds true for even vaccinated people.”

Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table released its latest projections Thursday amid surging cases of the Omicron variant across the province. Officials pointed to early evidence suggesting the quick-spreading variant can produce severe disease, and warned that ICU occupancy could reach unsustainable levels in early January.

While boosters can substantially increase protection, “even two doses likely provide strong protection against severe illness,” officials noted, stressing the risk of severe illness is higher in the unvaccinated population.

“If you’re vaccinated, you’ve done essentially what you can to prevent the risk of severe disease,” said Ranade.

“Omicron is forcing our hand to push us into this place where we have no choice but to recognize it as one of the other kinds of respiratory viruses that circulates, and accept the fact that sometimes it will cause severe disease — the way we do with flu.

“Because, we will not be able to postpone our social behaviour indefinitely throughout this pandemic.”

‘Circuit breakers’ with additional public health measures, and strong booster campaigns could “blunt” the Omicron wave, according to the Science Table findings, which noted that high-quality masks, physical distancing indoors, improved ventilation and increased access to rapid testing can help buy time for boosters to take effect and keep schools open.

“Schools are critical and foundational to our society and they need to stay open,” said Ranade. We need to treat schools the way we treat hospital systems, which is: you’re essential; you need to keep running.”

Meanwhile, the health unit is dealing with an unprecedented backlog of non-COVID services, such as oral health and vision screening for kids, school-based immunizations, prenatal education, home visiting for at-risk parents, and drinking water system inspections.

“Most of our time over the last nearly two years now has been totally redirected to COVID-19,” said Andrew Taylor, general manager of Lambton’s public health services.

Staff has been redeployed to provide mass community immunization, contact tracing, and operate the COVID-19 call centre, he said.

“So there’s a lot of business that we’ve needed to suspend or do on a modified basis.”

Last month, county council approved a request from Lambton Public Health to immediately recruit up to 4.7 full-time equivalent permanent staff to help catch up on the backlog of non-COVID services.

And that report was prepared before news of the Omicron variant — which has brought the health unit’s recovery plans to a halt.

“There was some hope that things would normalize but that’s not the case. So our focus is going to continue to be shots in arms, and getting our community protected,” Taylor said.

“We’re still in response mode, which has required us to bring on temporary staff and work with other agencies and partners to service our community.

“We haven’t been able to focus on any recovery planning at all. We’re so invested there that I just really don’t have a timeline, when we can get to the other work.”

Ranade stressed the importance of providing ‘realistic’ messaging to the community.

“I hope that…we can start to get ourselves out of this idea that there is some magic bullet here, or that we can all vaccinate our way out of this or test our way out of it, or better mask our way out of it.

“Those things do not seem possible with this variant,” he said. “I want people to know what’s coming so that they can decide for themselves what they need to do.”

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